Obama Cabinet Watch: Still No Hint of a Coherent NK Policy

Perhaps “ready on day one” was setting the bar a bit too high.  I dare anyone to find coherence within the dizzying crossfire of U.S. policy statements on North Korea this week.

Special Envoy Stephen “Bud” Bosworth just returned from a trip to China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia to “convince the North to come back to the negotiating table” and “take the pulse” of the other four nations that supply the aid that sustains Kim’s misrule. Our diplomats never seem to grasp the notion of Kim Jong Il’s free will; unfortunately for Bosworth, Kim has no apparent interest in joining.  It would be great, of course, if Bosworth preempted North Korea’s divide-and-extort strategy and least coordinated U.S. policy with that of Japan and South Korea, but more on that in a moment.

If negotiating with Kim Jong Il’s turned back were not enough of a challenge, Bosworth is trying to impose a gelatinous policy of no talks outside the six-party framework while professing to be “open to the idea of direct dialogue” within the six-party framework, as Secretary of State Clinton calls for “patience” with North Korea’s belligerence. What Bosworth appears to be suggesting is bilateral talks with the North Koreans while the Chinese, Japanese, and South Koreans do boilermaker shots in the bar downstairs, just to be able to say it’s all within the “framework.”  I don’t want to suggest that the ridiculousness of this is novel.  This really is more continuity with the Bush Administration’s policy, though it certainly isn’t clear which of Bush’s successes Obama is trying to emulate.  What we say may matter more than who is there to hear it said, but for the near term, it’s probably how well we coordinate financial pressure with Japan and South Korea (and against Chinese investments in North Korea) that really matters. That’s why any perception of cutting Japan and South Korea out of the action seems like a very bad idea:

A high-ranking U.S. official who visited South Korea late last month reportedly said, “The U.S. needs to discuss the nuclear issue and other North Korea-related cases through new forms of multilateral discussion rather than initiating bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang. Experts are interpreting this as favoring a tripartite framework that includes the U.S., China and North Korea so while the contents of the discussion with China has not yet been disclosed, they are of great significance.  [The Hankyoreh]

And then, there is the manifest duplicity of the Chinese, the Russians, and at times, the South Koreans.  Have we finally come to terms with this and given serious thought about giving the Chinese, in particular, real incentives to help us pressure the North?

President Obama both sent Bosworth to China and spoke separately by phone on May 6 with President Hu Jintao. President Obama is reported to have expressed “concern” about North Korea’s recent activities in this conversation, which analysts are interpreting as a request for China to intercede.  [The Hankyoreh]

China’s duplicity is the root of why North Korea is free to behave as it does — it sustains the regime, allows it to continue its WMD development, and deprives it of any incentive to negotiate in good faith.

For the foreseeable future, there will be no talks and more provocations.  Absent that, there is no hint that the U.S. government has any idea of how to deal with North Korea or bring it to any talks from which we can negotiate from strength.  North Korea has obviously made the decision that nothing we’re going to give them this year is worth as much as what we’ll give them next year, after they’ve significantly expanded their capacity to engage in nuclear extortion and put on a few acts of theater for our satellites. Just as clearly, China isn’t helping us to give North Korea that incentive. Statistical information about Chinese aid to, and trade with, North Korea isn’t available to the open-source world, but the fact that North Korea sees fit to turn away from all the incentives we’re implying they’ll get for disarming certainly suggests that the regime is sufficiently funded to get through another year or two of belligerence. Where else but China could the money be coming from?

More reactions at the National Journal (ht: James).

My favorite, however, is Bruce Klingner’s summary of the situation.  This one is a must-read.  Klinger summarizes:

“I think we will not make progress with North Korea,” Klingner continued. “I think the year 2009 is going to be a year of great concern. I am more concerned on North Korea issues this year than I have for many years. This year, we’re in for a bumpy and white-knuckle ride.   [Joongang Ilbo]

And the Joongang Ilbo caps that glum assessment with this cheery headline:  “Talks with North remain possible: U.S. analyst.”  Always look on the bright side.

Related:   Stephen “Bud” Bosworth:  not the media whore Chris Hill was.  Also, not a political appointee or a full-time diplomat.  All good things, given that no policy at all still beats the one Chris Hill talked us into.